Sunday, August 22, 2010

Are Morals Axiomatic or Can We Reach Them Via Reason Alone?

     Today I should like to explore what I think is a failing of Rational Constructivism (the theorists of which refer to themselves as "anti-moralists); that we ought to only do those things we can reason out an explanation for, and avoid making decisions as to how to act based on base and vulgar superstition.  So what is the failing with this belief?  Well, where do you start reasoning from?  Since the topic is morality, let's take an appropriate question and see how Christian philosophy explains it and then see how Rational Constructivism answers it.

     Is murder wrong?  Why?

     Christian philosophy would answer this in a seemingly simplistic way -- that yes, it's wrong to murder because, essentially, the Bible tells us so.  If we are to take C. S. Lewis' anecdotal "common sense" approach, this is further backed up by nigh-instinctual human feelings, some specific "sense" almost akin to the physical ones, that is consistent and standard across humanity (and 'sense' seems to be a good analogy as some people seem to have relatively strong, weak, or no morality at all, much as each man's quality of sight and sound are rather relative).  More to the point, murder is wrong because the 10 commandments forbid it and Jesus' Golden Rule (under which all actions should be measured) says, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you;" most of us would prefer not to be murdered, so in following this rule we do not in turn murder.

      Rationalists seem to find such an explanation insulting -- they would equate it to submitting oneself to, again, base and vulgar superstition; not doing one's own thinking.  Surely, an intellectual would have a more dignified explanation where belief is not an issue in complying...right?  To paraphrase a response I got from this inquiry, "Yes, because it does harm."

     So apparently, I've been had.  I thought this guy was a rationalist and an atheist, yet here he is, adopting a moral that says "do no harm" as an axiom.  I asked "and why should we do no harm?" but he said he had already answered my question and intimated that further questioning was a sign of obstinacy on my part.

     Must we be left to our own to determine how a true Rational Constructivist would frame his argument?  I suppose we shall have to make as honest an attempt as can be made; and do correct me if the following conjecture mischaracterizes in any way, shape, or form, the philosophies of pure rationalism.

     Plato put forward one tool we might use:  "Act for the greater good."  But then, what is the greater good?  If we deign to turn to the public opinion on the matter -- assuming that surely, the public must know what's in their best interests, right? -- we get an inconsistent set of answers which varies temporally and regionally.  You might think inflicting pain was bad, right?  Not always -- De Sade, Sartre, and any number of ascetics (especially Buddhists) seem to value pain and suffering.  Of course, even had we found a consistent public opinion which held sway, we would then be left with the issue of explaining why the public opinion should form an axiom from which to build our arguments.

     Insomuch as most Rationalists tend to view themselves as men of science, which consists largely of divining how things work by observation and experiment, we ought to expect them to abhor sophistry and relativism since neither mathematics nor science work without some basic qualities of consistency and immutability.  (For example, if we define ourselves some numerical representations for counting in base ten, 1 + 1 should always be 2; it can't sometimes be 3 and sometimes be 0).  But yet, that seems to be what we're left with with a purely Rational approach.  We cannot apparently conclude what is good and what is bad without adopting some axiom on its face value.